Writer: Amélie Nothomb (tr. by Adriana Hunter)
Publishing House: St. Martin’s Griffin
Date of Publication: November 1st 2004 (first published August 26th 1999)
Rating: 5 stars
‘’Society conspires against her from early infancy. Her brain is steadily filled with plaster until it sets. ‘’If you’re not married by the time you’re twenty-five, you’ll have good reason to be ashamed’’, ‘’if you laugh, you won’t look dignified’’, ‘’if your face betrays your feelings, you’ll look coarse’’, ‘’if you mention the existence of a single body hair, you’re repulsive’’, ‘’if a boy kisses you on the cheek in public, you’re a whore’’, ‘’if you enjoy eating, you’re a pig’’, ‘’if you take pleasure in sleeping, you’re no better than a cow’’, and so on.’’
Amélie finds an ambitious job as an interpreter in a Japanese company in Tokyo. Soon, her dreams are thwarted. It doesn’t matter whether she has spent most of her childhood in Japan. Her coworkers only ‘’see’’ her European heritage, constantly abusing her with the phrase, ‘’You, Westerners’’. And Amélie descends, beaten by the jealousy and vicious rules of people locked in their own ridiculous microcosm.
Nothomb’s novel is shuttering, cruel, viciously sarcastic. And extremely brave. She throws away political correctness and exposes the cruelty of a significant majority in a stupid and futile clash between two parts of the world. But is it really that? Or is it really about the bottomless evil and cruelty to break the spirit of a young idealist, an act committed by people who refuse to accept change? This isn’t about countries. It is about the working environment mentality and we all have been there. And do they achieve their goals? Or does Amélie actually become stronger by turning their game against the cruel ‘’occupants’’ of the company? I think this depends on each reader’s perception of the story.
I loved her honesty and acuteness. Having read extensively on Japan and being very familiar with Japanese Literature, Nothomb describes – in a stronger and intentionally exaggerated manner- the exact same mentality that can be found in a plethora of novels by Japanese writers. Do we honestly believe that prejudices and cruelty go only one way? Here, we meet a cast of hideous men and oppressed women that find the chance to exact revenge on the ‘’new face’’. Women who are taught not to show their intelligence because it is only marriage that matters. And if you can’t get married, at least work hard. Mori is the epitome of a deeply sad, unfortunate and beaten person that projects the violence she has received on what she views as an easy target. This is a world where you need a formal statement to prepare photocopies, where you are forbidden to show your excellence in a foreign language, where you have no right to protest as your personality is being raped again and again. This is a Nazi environment in the 90s.
Yeah, well, about the Nazi thing…
I will explore Nothomb’s work with vivid enthusiasm. Speaking strictly for me, her sarcasm helped me through a novel full of humiliation and cruelty, a psychological rape, a crime against any trace of a basic human relationship. Let me tell you, I have faced a coworker like Mori, except I am no Amélie so she got what she deserved. But there are many Amélies in every country of the world, and this doesn’t seem to change…
‘’Ancient Japanese protocol stipulated that the Emperor be addressed with ‘’fear and trembling’’. I’ve always loved the expression, which so perfectly describes the way actions in Samurai films speak to their leader, their voices tremulous with almost superhuman reverence.
So I put on the mask of terror and started to tremble.’’